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Making a 4,O50-Ton Ship “Child-Friendly”

One thing that can be said of any U.S. Navy ship is that it has a “wow” factor. No hooks are needed. The ship’s size will immediately impress kids. And, its function — it does have guns doesn’t it? — makes excitement a sure bet. But, what can be said about a decommissioned U.S. Navy ship that would make a child understand sonar? How can a seven-year-old make sense of the Cold War? These are the types of questions I posed to myself at the beginning of my internship at The Navy Museum in the Washington Navy Yard in the District of Columbia.

The display ship Barry (DD-933) sits alone in the Anacostia River as a relic of the Cold War. After distinguished combat in Beirut, Cuba, and Vietnam, the Barry was decommissioned in 1984, and sent to the Washington Navy Yard to live out the rest of her days as a “display ship.” The United States Navy has many display ships anchored across the country. There are many types of people who visit them, including curious tourists, naval history buffs, and former and current U.S. Navy personnel.

As a museum educator, I was taught that objects can speak, but I’m here to tell you that the Combat Information Center of a Navy ship does not say aU that much if you don’t know what you are looking at. My mission was to take children from beyond their initial responses, “Wow, this is cool” and “This ship is huge,” to a deeper appreciation of what life was like as a sailor on a destroyer, and how important the Barry was to the U.S. Navy’s involvement in the Cold War.

Looking out of my office window day after day at the Barry, I began to wonder about its current existence in the Anacostia River, and what role it might play in educating people about the Navy. The Navy Museum’s audience is very diverse, and includes all ages, interests, and nationalities. However, I was especially concerned about the school-aged children, as I saw group after group being rushed through the ship in a daze of technical naval lingo.

I kept asking myself what messages and information were these children actually coming away with. Did they understand the big “so what” about this ship? After touring the Barry several times, I decided that the ship needed a tour targeted specifically to children. With the agreement of my internship supervisor, who was the head of education and public programs at The Navy Museum, I went about the task of trying to make the ship’s tour “child-friendly.”

The Navy Museum does not operate formal tours on the Barry. Sailors assigned to the Yard directly from basic training conducted tours of the ship. These sailors have no formal training in tour guiding, despite the fact that The Navy Museum’s education officer has offered many times to include the sailors in their docent training. Rapid turn over of personnel made scheduling training sessions inconvenient. The sailors are given a manual to read, and could tell you how every last electrical system on the ship operated. But, many do not know how to communicate information to children. (To their credit, the U.S. Naval personnel who were in charge of the ship’s tours were very helpful through the tour writing process.)

For safety purposes, the tour had to begin with what the Navy calls a “safety briefing.” Instead of lecturing the students and telling them what they couldn’t do, I decided to use the inquiry method. I asked the children to help me remember how we should behave while visiting the Barry. The rules for touring a ship are a bit different from a museum, so we would also discuss the “ship’s anatomy” by using inquiry. For example, I’d ask “Does anyone know what word the Navy uses for a ‘door’?” I would point to a “hatch.” Then, I’d ask the children what makes a hatch different from a regular door, and what dangers hatches might pose to visitors.

The tour continues with inquiry components throughout. My favorite part was toward the end. It took place on the forecastle, or fo’csle (bow), of the ship. This is the most dangerous part of the ship due to the anchors and running mice. Mice, you may ask! Sailors termed the anchor chains “running mice” as the links appear to scamper across the deck as the anchor is lowered into the water. The running mice, and other “animals” of the fo’csle (the elephant’s feet, wild cat, turtle backs, etc.) offered a great opportunity to engage children’s imaginations. Guides tell their audiences that every ship has animals that live on the bow. Then, they point to a piece of equipment and ask visitors to use their imaginations (as the sailors once did when they created these names) and share with the group what animal they think it looks like. Even adults in the audience get involved, and humor abounds.

To provide follow-up on the tour, and to reinforce the information learned, I created a children’s activity booklet titled “Honorary Crew Member Log Book.” It contains activities and word games for children and families to do during or after their visit.

I took advantage of every opportunity to test the tour. I began by giving the tour to a sailor tourguide. This was to ensure that all my facts were correct and that I was not delivering any misleading information. Once that was accomplished, I began to seek out school groups, families with young children. and anyone who wanted to take the “children’s tour.” The evaluation period was valuable and played a significant role in refining the tour.

Among my earliest test groups were 15 fourth graders, three chaperones, a teacher, and a family of three. The teacher commented to me that this was the third year in a row that she had brought her class to the Barry and that this tour was the most interesting. She particularly liked the interactive components, allowing the kids to ask, as well as answer, lots of questions. The tour ended up being an hour long, which was a half-hour longer than the regular ship tour. I explained that to provide a quality experience for children, they needed time to look, cognitively interpret, ask questions, and share thoughts. On a 424-foot ship, which is a foreign environment to many visitors, people should not be rushed or they would lose the value of the experience.

The children’s tour of the Barry was a big step for me, and had impact upon the interpretation of a piece of U.S. Naval history. And, what was most gratifying, it helped to make a 4,050-ton ship come alive.

Kristin Gallas is currently the education officer at The Montana Historical Society in Helena, MT. Her previously contributed article, “A Guided Research Program Asks the Right Questions” appeared in the Winter 1999-2000 issue of The Docent Educator.

Gallas, Kristin. “Making a 4,050-Ton Ship ‘Child-Friendly,'” The Docent Educator 10.1 (Autumn 2000): 18-19.


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